The Fandom Menace

Living on the sidewalk for a month. Sleeping with Wookiees. Thousand-dollar action figures. Think the new Star Wars is just a movie? You poor fool.

Seaskull has built a small following as a folk singer, first in a band called Nerdy Girl and now just as herself. She's started writing children's books too, a la Judy Blume. And she has filled almost every crevice of her life with artifacts and knowledge mined from the holy trilogy. She sleeps under a comforter covered in Wookiees and TIE fighters that she got when she was a little girl, and she scours flea markets for broken plastic action figures, headless Darth Vaders, and cigarette-burned Boba Fetts. The title track on her first album, Nerdy Girl, describes her first experience seeing the movie. And after all these years, she still wants to marry that handsome scoundrel Han Solo.

She is a Star Wars fan. Never mind that she has a nose ring and lives a bohemian lifestyle. Never mind that she lives on $3 a day. She's part of a demographic so pervasive and so taken for granted that for years, few people noticed it was even there. Until now--the massive groundswell of excitement preceding the May 19 opening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that has begun to colonize every outlet of media on earth. The lifelong fans now stare into a mass-culture spotlight familiar to the likes of Clinton and O.J. and are asked to explain themselves. After a dry spell that has lasted more than half her life, the moment has come for fans like Cecil Seaskull to prove to the world that their passion goes beyond the basic truth: Pretty much everybody loves Star Wars. The fan is put on camera and asked to explain her passion; unfortunately, the Star Wars fan does not broadcast in full detail. As seen on E! or EXTRA, her world and her beliefs may not make sense. But they will.

With special effects light years beyond anything usually seen onscreen today, a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson, and Natalie Portman, and commercial tie-ins with nearly every outlet of modern American life, Episode I will have no trouble attracting audiences or attention. But the hardcore, lifelong fans, those weaned on the original trilogy, those who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s, want to prove themselves now. Their time has finally come. So some of these fans plan to stand in line for a month, just to do it. They want to celebrate the tradition of line-standing, given a kick when the original film opened in only 32 theaters (Episode I will likely open in 1,800) and spawned spontaneous queues blocks and blocks long.

An international coalition of fans, most of them male, most in their 20s, all with a lot of time on their hands, has organized a massive stakeout of America's most prestigious theaters. They want to stretch the experience of watching a movie as long and as far as possible. The holy trilogy's usually amorphous and hard-to-pinpoint fan base is solidifying to perform a demonstration meant to outdo the "event movie" shenanigans of '90s Hollywood. Seaskull, reading about the plans on the Internet, decided immediately to join them, to stand in line for a month, despite "security" concerns from some of her guy friends.

"Fuck them, I'm doing it. I don't care," says the singer, all 4 feet 10 of her. "Just imagine being 95 years old and saying, 'Yeah, I lived on Hollywood Boulevard for a month to see Star Wars.'"

The extreme patriotism felt by the fans now has them devising ways of out-fanning each other: standing in line longer, seeing the film more times, knowing more about the special effects and plotline than anyone else, bragging that "their movie" will steal back the all-time box-office title from Titanic--which took that honor from the original Star Wars. They don't care, of course, how much money the movie makes, so long as it makes more than any other movie. A bankable validation of their passion.

"The people who are excited are so excited that it's almost making it seem abnormal," says Scott Chernoff, managing editor of Star Wars Insider, the official magazine of the Lucasfilm fan club. The glossy book (formerly the ragged newsprint 'zine Bantha Tracks) is based in Denver, but Chernoff lives in L.A., where he interviews actors who would be familiar only to fans, the people who played Admiral Ackbar and Dengar and Red Leader. Chernoff knows the fans; he has been one himself since 1977, since he was 5, and he reads every letter they write to the magazine. Star Wars groupies, he says, aren't what you call freaks and geeks. They're regular people.

"We have the stereotype of the extreme fan," he says. "They are an important part of the fan base, but it's amazing how many more fans there are. You can't become as huge as Star Wars by just appealing to a small slice."

Like most Star Wars fans, Chernoff has a real life. He's an actor living in Hollywood. He doesn't plan to wear a furry Chewbacca head and camp out on the sidewalk for the next month, but he empathizes with those who do. He understands the thousands who last November bought tickets to Meet Joe Black and The Siege just to be the first to see a preview for Episode I. He gets why fans would download tens of millions of copies of the film's second trailer from the Internet, the biggest event in Web history, not counting the Starr Report.

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